Memoirs of a Geisha, the film that made big news even before it was released, takes Oriental films to a new level of subtlety. However, you cannot miss Hollywood in the film, steeped as it is in American sensibilities
A new world has opened itself up to Hollywood hills in the last few years thanks to releases such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the lesser-known work of art, Hero — the mysterious and beautiful world of the unsullied Orient. Unlike the raw, unfinished feel of martial arts films churned out by the dozen, these hits wove into the tale a poetry of movement and visual richness strongly unlike the fast-paced slickness of American cinema. And a new entity has stepped into that world — the screen-adaptation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.
Life of a geisha
The film is centred around the life of a geisha, beginning with her entry into that realm as young impoverished Chiyo, her sufferings during years of training, especially at the hands of the cruel star of the geisha house Hatsumomo (Gong Li), her entry into adulthood and geisha-hood under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and finally the conflict she faces between her duties as a geisha and the love she bears for the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). It is a long, meandering tale, running to a significant 145 minutes that constantly switches between sudden dramatic highs and long placid intervals that take the story along. The film ran into controversy much before its release, when the somewhat unusual casting choices first became widely known. The film has taken a rather bold move in casting three previously successful Chinese and Malaysian actors in all three female leads rather than Japanese performers. This had aroused nationwide protests in China, which believes that the choices are tasteless in the face of the long-standing hostility between the two nations. One protesting blogger, for instance, says: "Sleeping with a Japanese man for money is disgusting. She humiliated all Chinese people." In fact, the loudest protest voices have even called for Ziyi Zhang to be killed for this outrage. Even the government has reacted unfavourably to the film, banning its screening in China. However, the actors do not find any anomaly in the casting choices. Michelle Yeoh, for example, says in an interview: "We're not concerned when we see an American play a German or a Frenchman playing an American. When we make a movie we play Japanese or Koreans or whatever we have to. We do not look at it and say, `Ah, well, I am Chinese.' My God, that would limit me a lot." Rationalisations aside, however, the casting choices are rather obvious when looked at through the eyes of the average Hollywood producer. Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li bring more to the Hollywood table than perhaps any three other actresses on the Pacific Rim. Another striking oddity in the film is that all the actors speak English rather than Japanese. Again, with American director Rob Marshall at the helm, the choice is rather obvious. For those who can look past the controversies to the accolades the film hopes to win in the future, another telling pattern exists. At the Oscars, the film has gained a sizeable six nominations — for art direction, cinematography, background score, costume design, sound and sound editing. One can tell at first glance, that the nominations all revolve around aspects of presentation rather than content itself. For all the big-gun categories such as acting, directing and production, the year's heavyweights such as Brokeback Mountain and Munich have nudged the film out of the spotlight. However, the film has been duly credited for its visual and textural appeal on a number of other occasions, such as the BAFTA awards, where it picked up the awards for music, cinematography and costume design. And indeed, that has been its greatest appeal for audiences around the world — rich montages and a quaintly different score that create a wonderful fantasy — completely foreign to most of us.
There are those who claim that the film falls due to the distinct American perspective that shines through and sometimes directs the Japanese story according to its own sensibilities. But in that sense, all of Hollywood must be denounced for its ability to understand little of any culture beyond its strip-mall shores. And yet, generations after generations have swallowed less textured narratives without batting an eyelid. With Memoirs of a Geisha, at the very least, audiences have a chance to savour the details, an aspect that always goes down well with Indian audiences, brought up as we are on a strong tradition of pomp and grandeur.